5 key takeaways from the new Mormon essays on women, priesthood, and Heavenly Mother

New LDS Church statements on women clarify that belief in Mother in Heaven is official doctrine, and acknowledge the historic role that Mormon women have had in healing by the laying on of hands.

Hundreds of thousands of women, young women and girls 8 years old and older gathered on Saturday, September 26, 2015, for the general women’s session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference. The meeting was held in the Conference Center on temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah and in meetinghouses around the world. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Women, young women and girls 8 years old and older gathered on Saturday, September 26, 2015, for the general women’s session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I’m generally very pleased with the two new Gospel Topics essays on women and leadership in the LDS Church. Here are five significant takeaway points.

1. It’s officially official: There is a Mother in Heaven. Yay!

According to the Mother in Heaven essay, all people are “beloved spirit children of heavenly parents, a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother.” Belief in Heavenly Mother is referred to as “doctrine” in the LDS tradition.

Interestingly, both men and women are quoted as affirming this doctrine—prophets, yes, but also Eliza Snow and Susa Young Gates. The latter is called “a prominent leader in the Church.”

2. Folk beliefs about why Mormons don’t talk about or pray to Mother in Heaven are still not official, thank heavens.

I’m grateful that the essay did not try to speculate on this, other than saying that Jesus set an example of praying to God the Father.

For example, the essay never says, “We don’t pray to Heavenly Mother because she is a delicate flower whose feminine sensibilities would be crushed if anyone defamed her name like people sometimes dishonor God the Father!”

Which is just silly. If we believe she’s a GODDESS — someone who “side by side with the divine Father” works together “for the salvation of the human family” — then surely we realize she can handle it if some of her kids are ever less than appreciative.

And surely we know that for our part, the way to counteract other people’s false beliefs and mocking of Heavenly Mother would be to use that as an opportunity to testify of her goodness, power, and influence in our lives — not to lock her away so the rest of the world can never get to know her.

3. Joseph Smith authorized women to exercise priesthood authority, even using the language of ordination.

Understanding women and priesthood in the early LDS Church is given more ink than any other topic in the essay on women’s leadership, and with good reason. There’s a lot to discuss. Generally, the essay did a good job of acknowledging the considerable history of women’s leadership in the LDS Church, and it also went out of its way to acknowledge that Joseph Smith prepared both women and men to “receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples.”

Moreover, the essay makes clear that Joseph Smith had “something better” in mind for women than simply making the Relief Society a charitable organization. It was to be organized “in the Order of the Priesthood” and its female officers would be ordained to “preside over the Society.”

4. LDS understanding of priesthood has changed over time.

On the other hand, the essay takes great pains to note that the way Latter-day Saints used terms like “ordain” and “keys” in the nineteenth century is different from the way those are today associated with particular offices of the Melchizedek priesthood.

So while it’s clear from Mormon history that women exercised priesthood authority in some capacity, there is no evidence that they were ever ordained to priesthood office.

What the essay does not say here is revealing, too. It does not say that women have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood,” and I am glad. Just because I can call my home teacher to come and lay hands on my head does not mean that I have “access to all of the blessings of the priesthood.” Many priesthood blessings come through the wisdom and spiritual maturity that are gained by being stretched in service and leadership, not by merely being the passive recipients of someone else’s words.

Instead, the essay focuses on female leadership and the exercising of gifts. It’s about women healing, serving, blessing, administering, and praying—and not about women being healed, served, blessed, administered to, or prayed for. To me, this is a welcome shift in tone.

5. Mormon women regularly performed blessings of healing until the 20th century.

Many contemporary Latter-day Saints may not be familiar with the scholarship documenting women’s extensive activities in laying their hands on the heads of fellow church members (including men) and healing them, so it’s wonderful to have this officially acknowledged by the Church.

But there are a couple of ways in which the essay oversimplifies things or downplays conflict, as Fara Anderson Sneddon, who has done more research on this history than anyone I know, points out in a post for Rational Faiths.

First, the essay makes it sound like the practice of women giving blessings suffered a natural “decline” in the early 20th century. That’s far from the case: many women fought tooth and nail for the preservation of this privilege (including general Relief Society president Bathsheba Smith and even Eliza R. Snow, who is actually quoted in the essay as an apologist for the other POV!).

Second, the essay presents women’s healings as being totally removed from the concept of ordination. If you had only this essay to go on, you would assume that Mormon women were giving blessings on an ad hoc basis only based on their faith in Jesus Christ, rather than in the name of the priesthood, and that no one had set them apart to be healers.

The historical reality is more complicated. Some women did invoke the power of the priesthood, which they had been taught they held in conjunction with their husbands, and they sealed their healing blessings accordingly. And in some cases, women were healers as an official calling in the ward. Women’s healing role wasn’t just the “emergency” scenario that’s sometimes tossed around (“You’re a mom stranded on a desert island with no priesthood holder in sight . . . HOW DO YOU CURE YOUR CHILD OF MALARIA?”).

So, the essays are not perfect, but I’m really pleased overall. Just to have official confirmation of the history of women performing healings and blessings is a huge step forward.